∞ Apple COO Cook: 'Giving Verizon customers a better choice.'

The iPhone 4 is coming to Verizon. It’s not a tectonic shift in the American cell phone landscape, but it’s still an important development for both Apple and Verizon, as evidenced by the presence of senior executives from both companies in New York on Tuesday.

[ad#Google Adsense 300×250 in story]Apple executives told The Loop that Apple just wants to give customers what they’ve been asking for.

“It’s about getting products into people’s hands that they’ll love,” said Apple COO Tim Cook. “We’re giving Verizon customers a better choice.”

Up until now, said Cook, Verizon customers have been “forced” to get Android-based phones, and that’s a limitation that many aren’t happy with.

“So many people have been asking for this for such a long time,” said Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, Phil Schiller.

Dan Mead, Verizon’s president and CEO, stressed the “strategic partnership” between Verizon and Apple repeatedly during Verizon’s press conference.

The message is very clear. For Verizon, the arrival of the iPhone 4 helps keep them ahead of their nearest rival, AT&T. AT&T was never mentioned once, either by Apple or Verizon, but it was certainly the elephant in the room.

Mead emphasized Verizon’s effort to prepare for the iPhone 4’s arrival – measuring and boosting bandwidth and service, preparing customer service training, readying its distribution channel for the onslaught it expects when the iPhone 4 goes on sale to the general public beginning on February 10th. It’s a pretty unmistakable shot across the bow of AT&T.

AT&T may have made it possible for the iPhone to come into existence, but they’ve also been a source of constant complaint by iPhone users. AT&T service has been plagued by dropped calls, inconsistent coverage and frequent congestion of its data and voice network, particularly in heavily-populated urban centers and during tech events where large numbers of iPhone users coalesce temporarily.

Even Steve Jobs acknowledged AT&T’s issues during last year’s D: All Things Digital conference, after fielding a question from a frustrated iPhone user who complained about dropped calls.

Jobs has separately tempered his criticism by suggesting that other carriers would have experienced the same growing pains as AT&T. But it’s cold comfort for iPhone users, and the problems have been the butt of endless jokes – even a segment on Tuesday night’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

So it’s no wonder that Verizon’s representatives at Tuesday’s event could be heard repeating the slogan “America’s most reliable wireless network” almost as a mantra.

Brenda Raney, executive director of corporate communications at Verizon Wireless, expects that AT&T users fed up with problems will come to Verizon in droves. “The network is a compelling reason to switch,” she said.

“We’ve built our brand around the quality of our network,” Raney said. “People buy a phone and expect to be able to use it to make phone calls – without having the call drop.”

What’s more, Raney believes there’s a tremendous opportunity to sell the iPhone to existing Verizon customers who have been waiting for the iPhone.

Ben Bajarin, director, consumer technology at Creative Strategies, suggests that despite its best efforts to prepare, Verizon may still be in for a few surprises when iPhone users begin to populate its much-vaunted network.

“We know that iPhone customers are much more data-driven than any other smartphone user, even Android users,” said Bajarin.

On that note, Bajarin sees some impediment to AT&T user migration to Verizon particularly from more experienced iPhone users who are accustomed to using data and voice simultaneously – a limitation of Verizon’s 3G CDMA network.

“All of Verizon’s customers are already used to it,” Bajarin said. “For them, it’s much less of an issue.”

But Bajarin sees the CDMA iPhone 4 as an important first step for Apple and Verizon laying the groundwork for future business together, especially as Verizon continues to migrate its network to LTE, its 4G technology which is already available in dozens of urban areas around the country.

That’s a thought echoed by Tim Cook. At the close of Tuesday’s press conference and Q&A, he remarked to the audience, “This is the start of something big.”